Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

A Comment on Parallel Worlds

Tony Hellmann
©2003, Tony Hellmann

o you're building a parallel world. What does that mean? Star Trek watchers may remember the episode when Kirk found himself in a parallel universe, on his ship, with this crew…only they were evil, and the Federation was an evil empire. That's one example of a parallel world. But there are others.

I've just finished the second draft of a novel set in a parallel world. The protagonist is a straight man in a world where everyone is gay and faces life as a sexual minority. Some parts of this parallel world need little explanation. Since my book is set in Seattle in 2003, readers have an idea of the technological aspects of American society, and because I occasionally reference history and pop culture, they recognize a common understanding of the setting. They assume that all the physical laws and sciences work in the manner to which they are accustomed, unless I explain differently. My explanation must be good enough for them to suspend disbelief and continue on.

After finishing my first draft, I jubilantly took my manuscript to the best-known discount POD publisher in the country: Kinko's.  There I had a half dozen reader's copies printed. The first question on each of the three I got back was the same: If straight people compose less than ten percent of the population, how do babies get made?

My initial thoughts ran along the lines of the misunderstood artist: It's not important how babies get made. Don't you see that this is a social commentary designed to get you to challenge stereotypes and notions of heterosexism by putting straight people in the oppressed position?

However, these weren't the first words out of my mouth, as I believe that the responsibility for accurate communication lies with the sender. The receiver just receives. The sender has to transmit the correct data for the receiver to get the correct picture, and if readers have questions, I can't go to each of them and explain the answer verbally. I need to do it in-text. It occurred to me that regardless of my intended message, my readers could not ignore a glaring inconsistency just for the sake of argument. One can do that without prior explanation in the 'mental experiments' common to the fields of physics and quantum mechanics (like Schrodinger's Cat), but not in a novel.

So that brings us back to worldbuilding in a parallel world/universe/dimension/space-time continuum. Parallel worlds will require a suspension of disbelief, like all fiction, but it needs to have some background in order to make it real. If Michael Crichton had started Jurassic Park with ImGen cloning dinosaurs, and without explaining where they got the dinosaur DNA, it would have been difficult to suspend disbelief regardless of how good the rest of the novel's parallel world turned out to be.

Believable premises must precede diversions from current reality. The believable premise in Star Trek wasn't the transporter accident that sent Kirk to the parallel world--that was the catalyst--it was that the Enterprise was in uncharted territory, making new discoveries, with each of those discoveries altering the way the human race understands the universe. That parallel universe was yet another discovery, equally as fantastic as the ones the Enterprise made before and after.

For my novel, the believable premise went back three thousand years, to artificial insemination practiced by the ancient Egyptians, among other societies. It's true that this isn't important to the setting of my novel; however, it is vital that the reader know and accept the underlying thesis. As you build parallel worlds, pay attention to the why as well as to the what. Your readers will.

Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton, ISBN: 0394588169